In his classic 1954 work _Witchcraft Today_, Gerald Gardner constructed an intricate theory for the origin of the ancient witch-cult whose rituals, he claimed, he had been invited to witness and report on. According to Gardner, these British witches were carrying on a tradition handed down to them by their parents and grandparents, practices originating far back in the mists of time. Since he did not disclose identifying details about who or where these witches were, meaning that nothing of them can be verified, it is impossible to tell if he had truly penetrated an ancient, secretive cult, or if the story he told was nothing more than an elaborate fantasy. Claiming that the witches themselves did not know their origins, Gardner weaves together a rather incredible explanation on their behalf: Witches, he said, were the descendants of an aboriginal British race driven into hiding for their continuing practice of their indigenous religion, magic. What's more, this aboriginal race was actually a pygmy race which, when driven into hiding, gave rise to legends of "little people," faeries, pixies, elves, and other magical folk, who even though eventually intermarrying with the larger population, still retained their magical ways.
There are a number of problems with this explanation. First, there is the historical problem. Gardner identifies the Picts, a non-Celtic people of Britain inhabiting the northern area of Britain (modern Scotland) from pre-Roman times, and which by 900 A.D. had disappeared, as the aboriginal pygymy race from which the witches derive their traditions. According to him, "they were much the same as the present-day pygmies of Africa, small people bullied by their bigger neighbours and driven out of the best lands into the hills and woods and other inaccessible places. They raid cultivated fields and play pranks, but if their thefts are forgiven and food is sometimes left out for them, they will, in return, leave gifts of their hunting spoils, meat, ivory and skins" (p. 56). Additionally, he finds a linguistic link in the English word pixie and the Roman name for these peoples, the Picti.
It all sounds good at first, but it doesn't hold water. First off, none of the sources contemporary to the Picts describe them as being pygmies! Roman accounts of the invasion and conquest of Britain and her native peoples make no mention of the Picts' unusual size, nor do the Anglo-Saxons some five hundred years later. Bede, historian of the English people, writing in the seventh century, when the Picts were still known, does not describe them thus; in fact, it is not until the fifteenth century, five hundred years after they had ceased to be known as a separate people, that anyone describes them as being little: the Bishop of the Orkneys says of them that they "were only a little exceeding pygmies on stature and worked wonderfully in the construction of their cities evening and morning, but at midday they hid themselves in little underground houses, fearing light."
Further, there is a lack of archeological evidence to support the idea that the Picts were little people. No skeletons, no systematic ruins, nothing. The totality of Gardner's archeological evidence for the Picts' pygmy nature rests on a handful of inexplicably cramped cells. Given the fevered pitch of the medieval imagination, it's likely that it was just this sort of random cell which gave rise to the original suspicion of the ancient peoples' being pygmies.
But what happened to the Picts? The same thing that happened to every other native population: They intermarried with the invaders and formed a new stock of people. It isn't as interesting as the theory that they hid themselves for a few hundred years, but it is, unfortunately for romantics, standard operating procedure in the world of conquest and invasion. Another cultural habit kicks in here too: The memory of the "savage Picts" slowly transformed into folklore about an unnatural people to be feared, folklore with which to frighten children into being good and which bonded its tellers together against an unknown "other." And it is this folklore which Gardner relies on as proof of the continued existence of the Picts as mysterious, magical "little people" feared by "civilized society." All societies participate in this demonization of the other; its processes are too familiar to be taken seriously as a record of actual events.
So, if not the survival of the practices of an ancient pixie-folk, what was Gardner's witch-cult? Probably not what he made it out to be. Did countryfolk of Gardner's day practice folk magic? Certainly, and one hopes customs of the sort will not be lost to modernization. Did they learn the custom from their parents and grandparents? Certainly. Was it the watered-down memory of ancient pagan practices? Absolutely. Were its practitioners voluble about the sorts of folk magic they knew? Most likely not, but not out of fear of Christian persecution--it is more likely that it was the magic itself they feared. But none of this adds up to the sort of cult Gardner describes, a more or less organized group practicing an elaborate ritual which reenacts a central myth remembered from pre-Christian times.
The cult he describes, in fact, sounds suspiciously like the product of the theories current in Gardner's Victorian/Edwardian youth. Remember that science, particularly Darwin's theory of evolution, and archaeology, particularly the recent discovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh, with a Flood account which predated the account in Genesis, had effectively made belief in the Bible as a literal account of history difficult for educated people. Add to this the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, with its concepts of the noble savage and the divinity of nature, and Gardner's proffered witch-cult becomes less plausible and more obviously the fruit of common nineteenth-century fancies. His witch-cult was a "purer" religion, one bequeathed to us by nobler ancestors, carried on in secret, and tuned in to nature, one to replace the discarded Christian religion. It was, in short, the perfect religion for its time.